Religion, values and assessment

What is the purpose of religious education? Unlike other subjects taught in our schools, the answer to this question is fraught with political, moral and educational implications. Nigel Fancourt considers this quandary and what it means for RE assessment. 

AssessmentThe role of assessment in religious education is complicated as it is bound up with the wider issue of the purpose of RE.  Most subjects are deemed to consist of vital knowledge and skills, and then judgements are made about the pupils’ learning in them.  There may be strong views about these processes, but the broad aim is clear.

Religious education works differently.  At a political level, it can be seen as a dispute about values in education, and indeed about national identity.  On one hand, traditionalists often naively see it as the inculcation of broadly Christian values; on the other hand, progressives often naively see it as the inculcation of multi-cultural values for contemporary multi-religious diversity, such as tolerance and respect.  Both these conceptualisations often merge it with collective worship, and with the statutory requirement for ‘spiritual development’.  Indeed, in the 1990s, policy documents claimed that RE supported spiritual development, but that this could be not be assessed. This, however, seemed to imply that RE itself should not be assessed.  This dispute is also bound up with the dual system of schooling, with faith schools and non-faith schools having different expectations for the subject. 

However, the pressures of contemporary schooling mean that the subject has quietly developed over the last two decades by becoming more rigorous academically, especially through the demands of accreditation.  In England, the GCSE short course was very popular in schools, as a way of providing a robust recognisable qualification which would fulfil RE’s anomalous status as compulsory, but not as a full GCSE requirement.  It is increasingly popular at A-level, especially the philosophy of religion and ethics papers.  In some schools, RE has the best results, not because the pupils are hyper-religious or the school is a faith school, but because the subject and the rigour make it valued.  

Value and values

While I fully support this process, it is worthwhile considering what can be lost. A balance needs to be struck between the assessable knowledge and skills and the development of values.  There are two main issues here.  First, simplistic teaching to the test can result in a stereotypical presentation of the subtle diversity of religiosity: ‘Christians believe...’, ‘Hindus worship...’.  This can get the marks, but perhaps pupils are simply learning to respect a cardboard cut-out, and not the realities. 

Second, if the subject is underpinned by certain values, then when do pupils make sense of them in their learning? So busy getting from level 4b to 4a, or from a C to B, they fail to grasp the wider perspective.  Pupils need to value not just what can be measured, but value their values too.  

Not all these wider issues can be resolved instantly, but they are important to take forward in achieving a more holistic balance, in which assessment and accreditation contribute to any subject’s real goals. Uncertainty now hangs over the subject: it is not in the EBacc (seen as not academic enough? Or too progressive?), but still compulsory (too politically sensitive to remove it?).  But the more nuanced our formative and summative assessment processes are, the better chance it has of surviving and thriving. 

Dr Nigel Fancourt is a departmental lecturer in the Department of Education, University of Oxford, and a fellow of St Stephen’s House.

  1. Spiritual and Moral Development: a discussion paper, National Curriculum Council. York: 1993. Retrieved 17 December 2012.

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